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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Spotlight: Cinematographer Michael Simmonds on Working Collaboratively with Ramin Bahrani

You’ve probably seen Michael Simmonds work, even if you don’t realize it. The ace cinematographer has been very busy over the last few years shooting lots of movies, including notable docs Project Nim and The Order of Myths. He’s also shot all of Ramin Bahrani’s better-known films: Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and Plastic Bag, a terrific short narrated by Werner Herzog, and featured on Futurestates.

I first met Michael at Sundance years ago when Man Push Cart, Bahrani’s first major feature, was playing there, and his work so impressed me that that I’ve followed it since. A while back (okay, a LONG while back, like in October), we chatted through email about the way in which he and Bahrani collaborate, and he was kind enough to allow me to share his thoughts with you here.

Kim Voynar: How does the filmmaking process working with Ramin differ from your other projects? Specifically are there ways in which the process is more collaborative? Do you have more creative input, artistic freedom?

Michael Simmonds: I met Ramin in 2002 at Tribeca Film Festival after a screening of Amir Naderi’s Marathon, which I shot. He asked me if i would read his script which dealt with people who are mentally, physically and literally stuck in boxes. It was a very early draft of Man Push Cart, and was really good. Since that first encounter we probably have not gone more than a few weeks without talking.

Although Ramin and I communicate frequently, our conversations are always focused on cinema, movies we are watching and films we would like to make. There are no “meetings” but rather a consistent dialogue which has continued for 8 years and counting. It is a collaboration based on mutual respect and a common desire to make the best films we can. Films that we as audience members would want to see. No creative statement is off-limits between the two of us. Of course as the director he has no obligation what so ever to use the idea I may bring to the table, but I know he has thought about it and taken the idea seriously.

We began making these films when we were fairly young and had little resources. I was probably 24 or so when we made Man Push Cart. My involvement in other aspects of the production aside from my DP responsibilities began out of necessity rather than some sort of enthusiasm.

KV: I’m curious as to whether your input has ever influenced or changed the story itself either during prep or once filming has started? Or does Ramin come into it knowing exactly the story he wants to tell and then just looks to you for input on how to frame that
onscreen?

MS: Ramin is a director who is very focused on blocking with the camera and actors. He re-writes his scripts with the camera once on location. On Chop Shop we shot the entire film on a little camera for what felt like months … we have never done a “table reading” that i can remember, but rather rehearse on location with a video camera.

Ramin has his own process (for working with) cast which I have every little to do with. He might bring me in at a early stage to meet a few people so they have a familiarity as the project moves forward. Then after an amount of rehearsal period, we will bring me in to shoot some rehearsals. This is to introduce the actors to the process of working with a director AND cameraman.

For Goodbye Solo our challenge was primarily shooting in a car, which neither Ramin or i had done at that point. So we began by taking the obvious first step and spent a few days watching every car film we could find. We then went over the script together and discussed what we wanted tonally from each car scene and what type of location, framing and lighting would best match the scene. Then we took a digital still camera and photographed each other as the actors in the actual picture car to figure out if the ideas worked and how to technically achieve the shots.

Ramin and I have shot most of our films in one continuous shot, very rarely using “shot reverse shot”. Shooting in a car is very time consuming due to set up time and car scenes cannot be done in one take for obvious blocking reasons. We created shot lists and blocking to emphasize what was happening in the story.

For instance, at some point William starts to sit in the front seat of the cab due to the fact that he is no longer a passenger in the car but rather a friend. We would take this logic and find the best shot to show this.

There are a million and one ways to make a movie and Ramin and I have spent three-and-a-half movies working in a very close and collaborative way. I do not have the same relationship with other directors — but I don’t have the same relationship with ANY two directors. Each collaboration is its own unique experience and process.

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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

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